In May this year, when the National Commission for Religious Minorities was notified by the government, it seemed, albeit fleetingly, that the grave grievances of the country’s minorities may finally begin to be mitigated.
Unfortunately, though not unsurprisingly, as the dust settled after the initial brouhaha, the move turned out to be more of an eyewash than the fulfilment of legal obligations and minorities’ longstanding demands.
One of the reasons behind the dismay was that the federal cabinet had in fact reconstituted a toothless commission which has existed in one form or the other for around three decades, instead of acting upon the landmark 2014 judgment by then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani which had laid out widespread measures for upholding minorities’ rights and directed the creation, through legislation, of a powerful national council for the same purpose.
The ‘new’ commission formed by the government has a tenure of three years and comprises three Hindus and Christians each, two members of the Sikh community, and one member each from the Parsi and Kalash communities. It also has two Muslims (clerics) as members, while the chairperson will be from a minority (Hindu community). The body also comprises six additional official members from various government ministries — all Muslims, including the chairperson of the Council of Islamic Ideology.
Minority groups and human rights activists have expressed reservations regarding the composition and powers of the commission, terming it more of a body to promote interfaith harmony rather than minorities’ rights. As per their interpretation of the 2014 Supreme Court judgment, the minorities’ commission was to be set up similar to the National Commission for Human Rights — a statutory body. Moreover, as the commission has been notified without backing legislation and lacks independence as it includes government members, they fear it will be an ineffective forum as such temporary and futile measures have been taken many times before. Critics have also objected to the inclusion of Muslim members in a commission for minorities, and assert that minorities’ members will be apprehensive in freely discussing their communities’ issues.
Center for Human Rights Education Director Samsom Salamat said the newly-established commission seems nothing more than an act of appeasement following the Supreme Court’s 2014 verdict. “The commission’s formation is unconstitutional and undemocratic as rather than constituting it through an act of Parliament, it has been formed via an executive order,” he lamented.
Asad Jamal, a human rights lawyer, stressed that the summary moved by the Federal Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony for reconstitution of the National Commission for Minorities cannot be considered in compliance of the apex court’s 2014 verdict as this ‘commission’ has in fact existed on paper since the 1990s.
“The commission is not for the welfare of minorities and it does not have a veto over major decisions. It is merely a forum to promote interfaith harmony and healthy discussions,” shared Qibla Ayaz, head of the Council of Islamic Ideology and a member of the commission.
Despite the criticism, there is still hope that even if it is not all powerful, the commission can highlight issues of minorities at the national level.
Albert David, one of the three Christian members of the commission, welcomed the initiative and said he hopes they will be able to deliver fruitful results in terms of alleviating problems faced by minorities. David said they plan to lobby the relevant government departments to resolve the myriad issues confronting the country’s minorities, from the protection of worship places to amending discriminatory laws and practices.